Train services were hit today as thousands of workers went on strike over pay.

South West Train's services, which run from Brighton to Reading via Chichester and Basingstoke, were halted, forcing hundreds of commuters to make alternative travel plans.

The 48-hour strike began at midnight after last-minute talks with the Rail Maritime and Transport Union broke down last night.

Another 48-hour strike is planned for Monday and Tuesday, threatening further disruption as children return to school after the Christmas break.

South West Trains runs six trains Monday to Friday out of Brighton through West Sussex to Reading.

In past years any industrial action by staff at South West Trains has badly hit services out of Brighton.

The train company carries more than 100,000 commuters every day into London's Waterloo Station and across southern England.

Sussex commuters who travel to south west London, changing at Clapham Junction or Waterloo to use South West Trains, will also be affected by the walkout.

The union has rejected a 7.6 per cent pay increase over two years and is holding out for the deal to cover 18 months.

The company has given its drivers a 7.6 per cent pay rise over 18 months but stressed it was linked to productivity improvement.

The company says it has offered the RMT a similar pay rise over two years, not linked to productivity, followed by a further increase in line with inflation making the offer worth around 15 per cent over three years.

Vernon Hince, acting General Secretary of the union said the RMT had done its level best to resolve the dispute.

But he said the union would not stand by and see its members treated as "second class citizens".

He said: "Our members have stated loud and clear they expect equal treatment across the board.

"All we are demanding is a fair deal for all staff. Why should non-driver employees be treated less favourably when they work every bit as hard and are equally loyal?"

SWT said it was bitterly disappointed that the strike was going ahead and warned that its services would be severely disrupted.

Meanwhile, the Gatwick Express train company is scrapping its middle-of-the-night services between Gatwick and London.

The hourly service, operating both ways in the small hours, will end from Sunday.

There will be no trains between 1.30am and 4.30am and then the four-an-hour service will start an hour later from London and 15 minutes later from Gatwick.

A company spokesman said: "We were normally averaging about ten passengers a train on our middle-of-the-night services and this dropped even further after September 11.

"We have decided to stop the all-night trains for now but we shall continue to review the situation."

The news comes as rail chiefs promised local train services would be safeguarded under proposed timetable changes.

A strategic rail authority spokesman said yesterday: "There is potential in the timetable to squeeze in extra services, particularly in the South East. It's not about cutting one type of service at the expense of another.

"It's about trying to run more services."